Sunday, October 23, 2016

Joe Dante, part V: After all, the only thing that any 21 year old man, who already owns one dog and lives in his family's attic, could ever want for Christmas is a surprise high-maintenance pet


It's a rollicking good time, that much is for certain.  But indefeasible greatness wasn't in the cards for Dante this time around, even if you'd never know it from Gremlins' enduring reputation, its endless imitators, or its enormous box office success.  No, I suppose I'm definitely in the minority camp on this one.  And that's just for liking it—rather than loving the living shit out of it, as any boy born in the 1980s is required by federal law to do.

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Chris Columbus
With Zach Galligan (Billy Peltzer), Phoebe Cates (Kate Beringer), Hoyt Axton (Rand Peltzer), Frances Lee McCain (Lynn Peltzer), Corey Feldman (Pete Fountaine), Dick Miller (Murray Fetterman), Howie Mandell (Gizmo), and Frank Welker (Stripe)

Spoiler alert: high

The last time we saw Joe Dante, he'd just made the best werewolf movie of 1981—an accomplishment that seems like it ought to represent clearing a higher bar than was actually there, but it's not Dante's film's fault that its two competitors were varying degrees of crippled, or that The Howling pretty easily vaulted over them.  In the aftermath of success, Dante found himself scooped up, like so many other promising filmmakers in the early 1980s, under the sheltering wing of one Steven Spielberg.  (He also had the good fortune to arrive under Spielberg's protection after Spielberg learned how not to treat a contract director, during the debacle that was Poltergeist.)  Theirs was an association that would last, on and off, throughout the subsequent decade; and it's mostly thanks to Spielberg, and the success of the movie we're looking at today, that Dante wound up having a big-ticket career in the first place.  Even so, someday I'd really love it if someone were to ask Dante, point blank, exactly how it feels to have people call his occasional executive producer—that is, a man who was a year younger and whose only concrete contribution to Dante's formative years was convincing the owners of Jaws not to sue Piranha out of existence—his "mentor."

But you could, in fairness, say that Dante had cultivated a friend who could help him, and Spielberg, who'd always been impressed by Dante's verve, gave him what amounted to a bigger break than he'd ever gotten before, inviting Dante to helm one of the four segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Spielberg's and John Landis' love letter to Rod Serling's legendary TV show.  Dante could've been lost in that kind of shuffle, but instead of being the anthology film equivalent of the nerd generously permitted to tag along while all the cool kids got to have an adventure, Spielberg's segment imploded, Landis' actually put three people in the fucking graveyard, and Dante's—well, Dante's shined like a brilliant diamond.  (And George Miller's was even better than that, but I don't link to my older reviews for no reason, friends.)  That leads us right into Dante's first feature film in three otherwise-fallow years, likewise underwritten by Spielberg's burgeoning Amblin Entertainment brandThis was Gremlins.

It began as a lowly spec script, written by a young Chris Columbus in order to prove that he could format things correctly and type without making too many mistakes.  But once it hit Spielberg's desk, Columbus' dark-minded horror-comedy instantly became a real project with real resources behind it.  (Although, inevitably, it wound up lightening a bit in the process.)

For example, there's an earlier draft of Gremlins where this guy got eaten, and it's somewhat hard to imagine that the draft where Rover the Humorous Canine Reaction Shot dies isn't at least a little better than the one they filmed.

Dante was soon tapped to direct, thanks to his success on Zone along with the rest of his resume, which was already replete with both horror and comedy.  By my lights, however, it's got to be his first bona fide horror-comedy—because you shouldn't let anybody (not even Joe Dante himself) ever tell you that Piranha or The Howling were actually funny.

If we're being totally honest here, Gremlins is not especially funny either.  At the very least, it's not laugh-out-loud funny.  Rather, its estimable strength resides in finding a certain manic joy in the terrible disaster that befalls the town of Kingston Falls one Christmas, and while it may not be quote-unquote funny to watch this joy unfold, it is nevertheless a whole heck of a lot of fun.

Gremlins is a simple tale, which surley helps explain why it's been so aggressively ripped-off over the intervening decades.  Regardless, this story begins with one Rand Peltzer, a traveling salesman pitching various products that he himself has invented (and which have a tendency to not work, like, at all).  Presently, he's found himself beating the streets of some unspecified Chinatown.  It's more like the idea of Chinatown, really—but that certainly fits, for Rand's home is more like the idea of some whitebread small town itself, as we'll discover when we arrive at Kingston Falls, sitting postcard-perfect in the freshly-fallen snow.

But for right now, it's a week before Christmas, and Rand's searching for a present for his son, Billy, whose crappy teller job at the local bank is apparently what's paying the Peltzer family's mortgage.  So you can see that Rand owes his son, and that's why he wants to get him something special.  "Something special" is, indeed, exactly what Rand finds when he visits an old man's wizard store and spies an animal in a cage called a "mogwai."  Rand acquires the cuddly little thing, by equal parts hook and crook, and dubs him "Gizmo," mainly because that's what assholes do when they buy other people pets.  In any event, when he hands Gizmo over to Billy, he makes sure to repeat the three rules he's learned regarding his care: 1)keep him out of the light, especially sunlight, which will kill him; 2)don't get him wet; and 3)whatever else you do, never, ever feed him after midnight.

Obviously, our callow hero won't last a whole week before accidentally breaking most of these rules.

First he spills a glass water on poor Gizmo, resulting in a salvo of baby furballs erupting from the mogwai's back; then he permits himself to be tricked by Gizmo's less-docile offspring into helping them complete their life-cycle by giving them a late-night snack; and, finally, the second, evil generation of mogwai mature into Gremlins' titular deadly beasts.  Now we have our monsters running about unrestrained in a world full of water—and it's no small miracle that the universe of Gremlins has not already succumbed to the Tribble Apocalypse these creatures represent, given the mogwai species' magical fecundity.  It is in humanity's favor that "snow" apparently fails to count as "water," for reasons left unstated; but the local indoor swimming pool will certainly do, and what started as a half-dozen pint-sized fuzzies rapidly becomes a legion of reptilian monsters.  They are smart and they are organized, led by the most cunning of their lot, the only other mogwai blessed with a distinguishing feature, and hence also an actual name: Stripe.  Only Billy knows the true size of this crisis, and so it's up to him and Gizmo (with the occasional assistance of Billy's potential girlfriend, Kate) to somehow put a halt to the gremlins' madness.

Gremlins is beloved by pretty much everyone, and it's very easy to see why: it is a hyperviolent live-action cartoon that Dante invested a whole lot of obvious skill and love into making.  As the best horror-comedies almost always do, Gremlins takes the menace sitting at the center of it quite seriously enough.  After all, the gremlins' very goofiness is, for the balance of the film's runtime, precisely what makes them dangerous: the rules of our little world just don't strongly apply to them.  The only rules they've got are the ones listed above; and, as you've no doubt noticed, those rules are pretty strongly tilted in favor of a gremlin rampage.

And so Gremlins takes no steps whatsoever to answer some very important questions, like where they get their miniature clothing from.  Well, one rather hopes they stole their various accoutrements from the town's apparently enormous population of theme-costumed toddlers, after they ate them.  But since this is clearly doing way too much work on the film's behalf, it's hard to be convinced that the sequence in Kate's bar, which involves an all-out gremlin cosplay assault, is not also the film's weakest five minutes by far.  It's here that the balance tips way too far into comedy.  The bit is so overlong—and so curiously harmless—it makes it too easy to forget that Gremlins' best gags work because they come so quickly and brutally that you could make an honest case that they aren't gags at all.  (Then again, there's also everything to do with Billy's inventor father, who is 100% composed of tired slapstick; and I daresay that Rand's hi-jinx demonstrate that the avowed comedy in this horror-comedy can be really badly overcooked.)

But Dante typically has better things to do with his gremlins than present them as (inter alia) a bunch of brooding, smoking Frenchmen and sashaying old-west harlots.  And when the mystery still clings to his monsters, his direction is outright electric.  His Twilight Zone segment, I've come to realize, was more than just a calling card.  It was the full-fledged realization of an aesthetic that you could peg as Joe Dante's own personal style.  Defined by gaudy hyper-expressionist colored lighting alongside a powerful commitment to canted angles and bullying camera movements, Gremlins sometimes feels like it was shot from the POV of Satan himself; and, needless to say, I just adore it.  Meanwhile, Gremlins has its other not-so-secret weapon: Jerry Goldsmith's extraordinary score, extraordinary mostly for the notes of "The Gremlins Rag," a malleable piece of music that ranges from giddy terror in its standard tempo, to the legitimately-creepy backdrop to Dante's often legitimately-creepy horror movie, when Goldsmith slows it down.  It is not a completely flawless score—there are a few overt joke cues that I could really do without—but when it's working, it's damned near perfect.  (Even if I'm also pretty sure Goldsmith stole it from Paul Williams' "The Hell of It," the closing song of Phantom of the Paradise.)

Dante's critters get down to some very impressive feats of anarchy here—the death toll in Gremlins is hazy, but it must be in the dozens, if not the hundreds.  Some of the deaths are funny; some of them, based on the laws of movie karma, are earned; all of them are pretty mean-spirited.  More mean-spirited still is how the gremlins themselves perish.  And so many do!

In this case, it's a minor pity that the film expends its best scene of gremlin destruction simultaneously with their arrival.  (This, of course, is when Billy's mom is forced to dispatch the first lot of Gizmo's children with the implements on hand in her kitchen.)  But Gremlins has energy to spare, mustering up a climax that might not be totally satisfying, but is extraordinarily gruesome.  And "extraordinarily gruesome," you know, goes a very long way.

Altogether, Gremlins is—at its core—a playing-out of its concept within Dante's visual imagination.  It is about little more than itself; though we can discern that there is something going on beneath the surface, lending an odd thematic heft and tying up a lot of Gremlins' loose ends.  Consider: Dick Miller makes his obligatory appearance here as a cantankerous laid-off factory worker, complaining incessantly about foreign cars and foreign gadgets and Making America Great Again.  He's the one who indirectly gives the gremlins their name, when he invokes the WWII legend during one of his drunken rants.  The real gremlins live up to his description: for all their atavistic chaos, they do have their way with machines—in much the same way that Billy's inventor dad (that weary practitioner of the modern American dream) rather plainly does not.  I'd call it Gremlins' sole gesture toward subtlety, if I actually thought it was done on purpose.

So, when the monsters wind up killing our poor proletarian with his own snowplow, and when what we have is a film that revolves entirely around a dangerous product from East Asia flooding our marketplace (and at Christmas, no less), leveling our picturesque stand-in for the Real America in process, it's very hard to ignore what else the film wants to be about, besides simply killing iguana-racoon monsters with blenders and microwaves.  And that's the ongoing collapse of the American economy in the face of globalization, still going strong in 2016.  It is a remarkably successful little allegory Columbus wrote here.

Between these two threads, we have the makings of an inarguable classic, to be sure.  Unfortunately, what doesn't add up to yet a third, and which somewhat actively harms the film, is the ease with which it becomes distracted from any character who isn't one of its animatronic puppets.  Not to say that Gizmo and Stripe aren't solid puppets: the pre-metamorphosis mogwai announce their toyetic artificiality a little too brazenly with their heavy-lidded Teddy Ruxpin eyes, but they're still incredibly cute; meanwhile, the post-metamorphosis mogwai are just wonderful little beasts, outside of their fashion sense anyway.

However, when it comes to the flesh-and-blood puppet named Billy, he's bound to be a bit of a letdown—maybe the single most nonspecific vision of "The Boy" in the annals of kid's adventure.  (Not that Gremlins really is a kid's adventure, despite being a "kid's movie" and despite its usual inclusion on the list.  To wit: I've seen the film a half-dozen times, yet somehow never manage to remember that Billy is old enough to drink at a bar while Judge Reinhold makes fun of him for being a put-upon, personality-free loser.)

In any event, though, there's just something hollow about our man Billy.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the film itself seems to have a little bit of contempt for him, refusing him the customary heroic end to a customary hero's journey.  It awards that honor instead to the loyal pet with the unexamined willingness to snuff out his own offspring (even though right up till this very moment, Gizmo's been pretty much entirely useless, except as the plot's witless instigator).  And yet it is still a very good ending, isn't it?  Perhaps all the more, precisely because our hero isn't flawless—plus, for a second there, you might just be convinced that Billy really is about to eat that chainsaw.

Which would've been totally great.

Instead, then, my general indifference toward Billy might have something more to do with the fact that Billy spends Gremlins' third act in the company of Gremlins' vastly more interesting could-be protagonist, who gets the single most compelling motivation that any human being gets to have in Gremlins' whole 107 minutes, concerning the tragicomic death of her father on another Christmas Eve.  And while it's certainly Gremlins' most typical sin—none of us here are naive, and we know damned good and well what "The Girl" means in an 80s movie—there is absolutely nothing that can convince me that what Gremlins does with Kate isn't also one enormous waste of potential.  Kate is the woman we could've gone on a real hero's journey with, as she faced her hatred of Christmastime head-on.  Instead, her backstory is reduced to just one more piece of perverse Yuletide scene-setting—no more important than the shattered lights, or the torn-down Christmas trees, or the gremlins going door-to-door a-caroling, merely more memorable, because she managed to touch on something more than just skin-deep.  (Incidentally, when he's told that Kate dislikes Christmas, Billy responds, "What are you, a Hindu or something?"  I have labeled this exchange, "Billy sucks, Exhibit A.")

But it's a little late in the day to rewrite the script for Gremlins, I suppose, not that I imagine for one second that anyone in the world would possibly appreciate me doing so—I think I've already mentioned that this one is well-liked.  So, we simply have the film that we have; and it gets hold upon the edge of greatness anyway.  In the end, Gremlins is too well put-together, too effortlessly enjoyable, and far, far too intoxicated with Dante's own lust for smashing his puppets into green paste, for me not to love it—or, at least, like it one whole hell of an awful lot.

Score:  7/10

P.S.: Now, this has nothing to do with anything, but puberty is freaking amazing, and it is ridiculous to imagine that the almost toddler-like human being played by Corey Feldman in this film would—just one year later!—become the tweenager roaring about the wishes that never came true in The Goonies.


  1. I've got to say, I was equally surprised that Billy is meant to be 20 in Gremlins. Since when did 80's fantasy adventure movies make room for full-fledged adults? Well, half-fledged at least.

    I LOVED Gremlins as a kid, though I haven't had a chance to revisit it in over a decade. My first experience with it, oddly enough, was a novelization of it that unearthed at my school library, which in no uncertain terms tells us that Gizmo is an alien. So that's something to chew on, I guess.

    You don't seem too keen on Dante so far, aside from The Howling and a quarter of The Twilight Zone. My two theories are as follows: You're a huge fan of Gremlins 2, necessitating this retrospective. OR: You didn't quite know what you were getting yourself into.

  2. Actually, I think I've seen about three-quarters of his filmography before, and there's at least one full-on masterpiece coming up directly (or, if not a masterpiece, then at least an entry into what Tim Brayton would call the old "personal canon," since I'm afraid that parts of its are very hard to defend).

    But I will admit that the crappiness of Hollywood Boulevard and especially Piranha took me by surprise. Boulevard is more offensive than I could've imagined possible from Dante, who seems like such a generally pleasant dude; and I don't get Piranha's reputation at all, since even if all you're comparing it to is "direct Jaws knock-offs," you still have Orca, Humanoids From the Deep, and the actual Jaws sequels--not to mention several non-aquatic killer animal flicks--before you get down to Dante's entry into that particular subgenre.

    Also, I'd seen Rock 'n' Roll High School once before, and remembered it fondly--but I guess that has to count as surprise too, I guess, since I really, really got a kick out of it this time. I'd put it up there with Rocky Horror and Phantom of the Paradise in the "best goofy-ass B-movie musicals of the 1970s" competition.

    And, yeah: I remember liking Gremlins better as a child, too. Gremlins is sort-of pitched at kids (and, apparently, the structurally unemployed), and I think that's fine. But it's a very weird, messy movie where not all its weird messiness totally works.